The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Let’s throw out the term ‘culture wars.’ This is religious tyranny.

Abortion rights supporters protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

In their never-ending quest to turn politics into a game and dumb down the most serious of issues, the media continues to use the term “culture wars” to describe a range of issues in which the right seeks to break through all restraints on government power in an effort to establish a society that aligns with a minority view of America as a White, Christian country. In using “culture wars,” one would think this were a battle between two sides over hemlines or movie ratings or “lifestyles.” If media outlets keep up that distorting language, they are going to find it hard to explain the firestorm that awaits the overturning of Roe v. Wade, if the leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. prevails.

The livid reaction from progressive advocacy groups and Democratic politicians across the country about the potential evisceration of abortion rights — and possibly others protected by the 14th Amendment — should tell the media this is not simply about “culture,” nor is it a “war.” It’s a religious power grab by justices who, according to at least two female Republican senators, dissembled under oath about their intentions regarding Roe. The Senate Judiciary Committee should hold hearings and call GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) to testify. If those senators were really duped, they should consider advocating for extreme measures, including impeachment and a filibuster exception to codify Roe.

It’s important to identify the nature of the threat to Americans to understand the reaction that would likely follow a ruling along the lines Alito laid out. A Supreme Court decision that would criminalize abortion, eviscerating the ambit of privacy and personal autonomy afforded by the 14th Amendment, would expand governmental power into every nook and cranny of life — from a doctor’s office in Texas treating a transgender child, to intimate relations in a bedroom in Georgia, to a pharmacy counter in Ohio. Will government dictate a set of views that have not had majority support for decades?

The right-wing justices and their supporters appear ready to reject one of the Founders’ core principles: that religion shall not be imposed by government edict.

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Other Republicans have given away the scheme. In his 11-point plan, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, declares: “The nuclear family is crucial to civilization, it is God’s design for humanity, and it must be protected and celebrated. To say otherwise is to deny science.” Put aside the utter incoherence (is it God or science?): The senator is explicitly calling for state power to be used in the service of his religious beliefs.

And it’s no slip of the tongue. As would a number of Supreme Court justices, Scott would impose religious views while refusing to admit his views stem from a particular religious perspective. “Abortion kills human children,” Scott pronounces. “To deny that is to deny science.” Actually, he wants to mandate conduct based on the religious view that humanity/personhood starts at conception.

This is not about “culture.” It is about appropriating state power to enforce theocratically driven positions. Issues dismissed as “culture” or “wokeness” inevitably boil down to whether government will diminish individual rights (e.g., a rape victim’s access to abortion) and supplant decision-making on matters, such as health care, that individuals and families jealously guard.

It wasn’t so long ago that “conservatives” stood for the proposition that government, especially the federal government, should not control the totality of traditions, habits and decisions made in civil society. The family, for example, should remain undisturbed to work out arrangements that reflect its members’ values, faith and views in a pluralistic society. The principle of limited government posits that — unlike totalitarian states that override personal conscience, family and religion — free peoples do not tolerate an all-pervasive government. As Vice President Harris said on Tuesday at an Emily’s List gathering, reversing Roe would be “a direct assault on freedom, on the fundamental right of self-determination.” She continued: “When the right to privacy is attacked, anyone in our country may face a future where the government can interfere with their personal decisions. Not just women. Anyone.”

In sum, the media’s “culture wars” shorthand is an evasion, a refusal to recognize that what is at stake are the rights and lives of those without the resources or power to defend themselves (e.g., travel out of state for an abortion). The Supreme Court is poised to roil the very essence of our constitutional tradition and strike at the heart of a pluralistic democracy. Let’s call it what it really is: state-enforced theocracy, or, if you prefer, religious authoritarianism.

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.